Supreme Court Justices Signal They Will Put Limits on States’ Power to Fine

(Bloomberg) -- Supreme Court justices signaled they will curb the power of cities and states to levy fines and seize property, hearing arguments in the case of a man trying to keep his Land Rover after he pleaded guilty to selling drugs.

Justices across the court’s ideological spectrum indicated Wednesday they were prepared to say for the first time that states and cities are bound by the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, part of the Eighth Amendment.

That step would put new limits on what critics say is an increasingly common and abusive government practice of using fines and forfeitures to raise revenue.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh said it was "too late in the day" to argue that states are exempt from particular parts of the Bill of Rights. Justice Neil Gorsuch said the only question was what exactly the excessive fines clause prohibits.

"Whatever it in fact is, it applies against the states, right?" he asked Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher. When Fisher hedged, Gorsuch added, "Really? Come on, general."

The case before the court involves Tyson Timbs, who bought his Land Rover for $42,000 in January 2013, a few months before police in Indiana arrested him for selling $385 of heroin in two transactions. Timbs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of home detention and five years of probation.

Timbs, who says he sold heroin to pay for what started as an opioid addiction, says the forfeiture of the vehicle was disproportionate to the $10,000 maximum fine he faced for his crimes. The Land Rover, which he was driving when he was arrested, had about 17,000 miles on the odometer when police seized it.

Guns and Drugs

Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the Eighth Amendment was originally aimed only at the federal government. Starting in the 1960s, the court began "incorporating" many of those rights into the 14th Amendment’s due process clause, which binds the states.

The court said in 2010 that the Second Amendment is incorporated, letting people challenge gun laws at the local and state levels. The 5-4 decision said the right to bear arms was "among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty."

Some justices suggested they were ready to go beyond the incorporation question and say that Indiana violated Timbs’s rights. Gorsuch pointed to a 1993 Supreme Court decision that favored a convicted drug offender fighting to keep the federal government from taking his motor home and auto body shop.

Under that standard, "don’t you lose?" Gorsuch asked Fisher.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor pressed Fisher to acknowledge he was asking the court to overrule the 1993 decision. "That’s the only way you can win with a straight face," she said.

An unlikely collection of groups is urging the court to rule that Indiana is bound by the excessive fines clause. They include the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the increasing use of fines and forfeitures is often coming at the expense of people who can’t afford to pay. The Chamber of Commerce is also siding with Timbs, saying businesses are frequently being forced to pay unreasonable fines.

Indiana contends the excessive fines clause doesn’t apply when a state files a forfeiture case aimed at property that was used to commit a crime. The state says such forfeitures have been a feature of American law for hundreds of years.

The Eighth Amendment says that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The Supreme Court has already ruled that the bail and punishment provisions are incorporated.

The court will rule by June in the case, Timbs v. Indiana, 17-1091.

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